It was his own experience with a rough divorce that led Bill Sears to set up a corner of the Internet devoted to giving children a way to cope with divorce and pushing for laws to make sure both separated parents are involved in their children’s lives.
At 15, Sears, of Marietta, is uniquely suited to the first part of his mission. And he is part of a growing movement in Georgia on the second half.
"It takes two parents to raise a child, but it only takes one parent to raise a messed-up child," he said.
Sears is part of a coalition of groups and individuals pushing the General Assembly to change ground rules for divorced couples for the second year in a row. While last year’s battle over child support has faded into the background, at least for a while, this year’s focus is on state custody laws.
At least one of the groups involved in the charge, Georgians for Family Law/Child Support Reform, was the major driver in the child support debate last year. And the issue’s constituency, noncustodial parents, is largely the same as the supporters of last year’s change.
At issue is how much consideration judges should give to granting joint custody. Advocates say such sharing would give parents more equality in everything from visitation time to making or influencing a child’s significant decisions.
"Nobody gets custody in a divorce," said Terry Pitts, 46, a divorced high school teacher from Martinez. "Somebody walks out the door having lost custody."
Noncustodial parents and their advocates say fathers, in particular, are far less likely to get sole custody in Georgia and face daunting odds in trying to get joint custody because of outdated notions that women are the better choice for a child coming from a divorce.
In Pitts’ words, "you basically have to prove that the mother is a drug-dealing prostitute.
"Either one of those alone might not be enough."
The solution, they say, is to create laws that either order judges to grant joint custody or encourage them to do so.
Under House Bill 369, sponsored by Rep. Tom Price, the Norcross Republican who led the House Shared Parenting Study Committee last year, judges would be required to spell out, in writing, why they decided on a certain custody arrangement. That would give a parent who wanted to appeal the ruling more ammunition, Rice said.
The divorcing parents would also have to submit a parenting plan to the court laying out the groundwork for visitation rights or which parent might have the ultimate say over a certain portion of a child’s life, for example.
"The best interest of the child is that both parents work together to parent their child," the study committee report says.
But some advocates are disappointed in Price’s bill, saying it doesn’t go far enough.
"The bill itself … does not address what the committee specifically said they needed to address," said Julie Batson, president of Georgians for Family Law/Child Support Reform.
Rice acknowledged that some groups want to see a law requiring judges to grant a father joint custody unless he is proven unfit.
"We don’t do that," he said. "But we do say there ought to be frequent contact."
And not everyone involved in divorce law thinks "shared parenting" is the right path.
"I don’t think it’s in the child’s best interest to do that," said Lisa Clarke, a family-law attorney in Augusta.
Constantly switching a child from one parent’s house to another can deprive a child of a steady environment, Clarke said.
"Children really and truly do need stability and routine," she said.